Carlos S. Alvarado, PhD, Research Fellow, Parapsychology Foundation
I recently reviewed in an article some old ideas about psychic phenomena and the brain hemispheres. This was an article entitled: “Psychic Phenomena and the Brain Hemispheres: Some nineteenth-century publications” (Journal of Scientific Exploration, 2016, 30, 559–585; available from the author email@example.com).
“The rapid development of neurology in the Nineteenth Century led to an interest in physiological explanations for psychic phenomena and related psychological anomalies such as mediumistic and hypnotic trance, and hysterical dissociation . . . Among the hypotheses presented to explain reports of alleged psychic phenomena, particularly those reported to occur in the presence of mediums, one group of physicians offered a variety of neurologically and psychophysiologically based notions.”
These developments included what was learned about localization of sensory and motor functions. Particularly important was the work about aphasia (see Reader in the History of Aphasia and this article.
“Interest in the brain and in the functions of the hemispheres also flourished during these times. Although some researchers defended a unitary or an equipotential view of the functions of the cerebral cortex . . . , the emphasis on localization began to be more widely accepted with the development of clinical and experimental neurology . . .”
In spite of much controversy, the idea of hemispheric dominance developed, leading to the “acceptance of the concept of left hemispheric dominance and the right hemisphere as the minor one . . . However, and regardless of dominance, the concept of duality of the brain was a popular subject for discussion during the Nineteenth Century”, as seen in speculations about education, disease and other topics. A famous early work of the period was Arthur Ladbroke Wigan’s A New View of Insanity: The Duality of the Mind (London: Longman, Brown, Green, and Longmans, 1844).
English novelist Catherine Crowe was familiar with Wigan’s ideas but, as I wrote, she rejected his “speculations about déjà vu and pointed out that presentiments of future things were particularly difficult to explain in this way.” Crowe stated: “The theory of one-half of the brain in a negative state, serving as a mirror to the other half, if admitted at all, may answer as well, or better, for those waking presentiments, than for clear-seeing in dreams.” She wrote about this in her famous book The Night-Side of Nature (London: T.C. Newby, 1848, Vol. 1).
Myers also wrote about the topic in relation to automatic writing. “He considered the similarities between ‘supernormal’ automatic writing and the ‘writing performed by patients who have . . . only the partially untrained half of the brain to rely on,—those centres which habitually initiate the graphic energy having been destroyed or rendered temporarily useless by accident or disease’. . . This is what many clinicians called agraphia, but which Myers preferred to call agraphy. In making this comparison, Myers pointed out that in both conditions the subject was occasionally unable to write and that sometimes repetition of letters or senseless words appeared. Transposition of letters and mirror writing were also considered as pointers to right-hemispheric action in writing problems . . .”
These are only some of Myers ideas. His writings have much more detail, which is also the case with other writers I will not discuss here who touched on the relationship between the hemispheres and mediumship.
“The ideas discussed here may be considered an interesting but forgotten chapter of the history of hemispheric functions and attempts to explain or find physiological correlates of psychic phenomena. They were certainly influenced by the Nineteenth Century interest in finding specific cerebral localizations of diverse functions, and particularly by concepts and discussions on the duality of the brain . . . While these ideas may be interpreted as part of the trend of Nineteenth Century science to conceptualize the phenomena of consciousness in natural terms, it was also an example of how spiritualists and psychical researchers appropriated neurological concepts as part of the workings of the supernormal . . . Of the examples discussed here, Myers is of special interest in that he attempted to put his speculations into the context of knowledge of aphasia and agraphia in the 1880s.”